Leading in a Business of Family and Friends

Photo by barth bailey on  Unsplash

Photo by barth bailey on Unsplash

If you have never worked with friends and family, either at a conventional job or in your own business, you might imagine it to be one of two things, depending on your relationship to your kith and kin. If you have a great relationship, it can be so much more fun and rewarding than working with strangers, and if you have a so-so relationship, it can be more difficult than working with strangers. But if you have a bad relationship, it can be a catastrophic nightmare that you feel you will never escape from unscathed! That last reason is why you have heard so many people probably tell you, “Never go into business with your family/friends!” Of course, at The Ghannad Group, we did just that and things have worked wonderfully. As such, I’d like to present a few tips for those thinking of doing the same, in hopes that their experience will be just as rewarding as ours. (And just as a side note, I will be focusing more on working with family than friends, but most of this advice is applicable to both situations).

Regardless of the quality of relationship you have with your friends or family, friendships and family ties always introduce another dimension of complexity into working partnerships that, unless managed intentionally, can lead to toxic relationships and poor results as the default. It certainly can be far more rewarding when everything clicks, but often it doesn’t, simply because there is so much more at stake than business results. Emotions run deeper and the human dynamics involved in decision making, conflict resolution, negotiations, giving and receiving feedback, and so on, are all amplified by years or even a lifetime of personal history. This is the case even if you really like your friends and family and have a good relationship with them, simply because your relationship with them is a different type of relationship than you have with others. Therefore, despite popular belief, unless you are intentional about managing the downsides of the situation, your personal relationships will be more of a curse than a blessing, and in the absence of such intentionality, it is almost always best to work with others in a conventional setting.

Some of the common symptoms of the problems that could arise, if you’re not intentional about effectively working with family and friends, are as follows:

·         Lack of accountability for the fear that attempts at holding anyone accountable will be perceived as the leader wanting to push their weight around without regard to the relationship.

·         Passive aggressive behavior because we avoid conflict until it gets to be unbearable and then we snap.

·         Entitlement mentality among those who consider themselves in the inner circle.

·         Power struggle among those who think they deserve to have authority that they haven’t necessarily earned or been given in the business context.

·         Perception of unfair treatment among those who feel excluded because they don’t have as strong family ties or friendships as others.

·         Ineffective communication because we overthink the possible negative implications of straight communication and because we assume others know what we mean.

·         Ineffective direction setting and execution as we assume we have leeway to disregard the direction given to us by a friend or family member who is our leader.

·         Absence of direct feedback given to or about those in the inner circle as we try to make sure we don’t cross the wrong person or hurt delicate feelings.

·         False sense of collaboration and cooperation simply because we have a great relationship outside of work, even though we operate in our own silos at work.

To expand on and explain the reason behind these default behaviors, especially when it comes to family, we really have to look at what it means to be a family member as opposed to simply a business employee. The biggest difference is the one from which all others flow, and it is that membership in a family is invariably involuntary and unconditional. Unlike a company, a family is an organization that has no real hiring or firing process or standards of inclusion for members. You are either part of one family or you aren’t, and you don’t get to choose which family you’re born into.

You can’t send out your resume to be hired by another family based on your skills and experience. And you can’t really be fired from a family (except on paper), collect unemployment, and go start looking for another one (matrimonial mergers and franchise creation notwithstanding). Unlike a company, if the business dries up, or if there is some disagreement, or there is some scandal, you still have to go home (or to the dining room) and eat with your family. You don’t really have the option of leaving when the going gets tough, and business disputes like this can have lifelong consequences if they are allowed to go unaddressed. Family is the one organization of which you are always a member, no matter what you do and where you are, whether you like it or not.

Because participation in a family is involuntary, things tend to be taken for granted, and performance reviews tend not to hold much weight. Unlike a publicly held company, a family does not have shareholders and does not have benchmark results it must meet to avoid being made obsolete by the competition. And as a consequence of the unconditional nature of family, its members tend to get away with a whole lot that would be unacceptable in any voluntary business organization. These include the aforementioned lack of accountability, poor communication, lack of initiative, lack of intentionality, power imbalance, entitlement mentality, and even manipulation and sabotage. And this, as ineffective as it sounds, is how it is meant to be, because if family could be hired and fired whenever they didn’t live up to our expectations, then everyone would be alone. To paraphrase Gloria Steinem, “The two main functions of family and friends are for sustenance and support in progressing through life’s stages, and to help you learn to live with and even love people you disagree with.”

While the dynamics described above seem complex and it may involve a number of people in the organization, the solution can be fairly simple if anybody who considers themselves a leader becomes intentional about addressing the real problem. I believe the root cause of the main problem really comes down to one thing: that people, sometimes especially the leaders, are more concerned about themselves than they are about the greater good of the organization. This may be obvious in the case of power struggles and entitlement mentality, but it is also the case with other seemingly considerate acts, such as treating people gently and sugar coating feedback rather than being honest and open.

I know it doesn’t seem that way on the surface, but please consider the following disingenuous practices we carry out as leaders:

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There are many more dysfunctional behaviors that can be traced to a lack of commitment to the greater good, albeit veiled as noble causes and gestures. I am a firm believer that, if and when a person is 100% committed to creating an extraordinary outcome, they will find a way to commit courageous acts, including having the tough conversations that we often avoid in family business environments. Furthermore, in the absence of such commitment, I know that we all find excuses for our behavior that perpetuates the ineffective interpersonal dynamics we complain about. We often blame others for our inaction. Sometimes we cite our own “lack of skills” for dealing with the situation as a reason. I acknowledge that there is something to be said about both of these categories of “contributing causes,” but the root cause is always our lack of true commitment to the cause that we say we are committed to.

If we really cared enough about people, we would extend them the courtesy and respect of sharing honest feedback with them. We would tailor the communication to the individual to make sure it was delivered effectively, but we wouldn’t withhold it. If we truly cared about each person being their best, we would provide them clear direction without regard as to how they might perceive us. If we were 100% committed to a cause greater than ourselves, we would accept full responsibility for the dynamics we consider unacceptable and we would role model the behavior we expect to see in others. If we were truly selfless and considerate of others, we would examine our motives and make course corrections instead of waiting for someone else to initiate the change.

If any of this resonates with you, I’d urge you to begin the process of restoring your team’s effectiveness by starting with yourself. Then, have an open dialogue with other members of your team individually and as a group to discuss what is working and what is not, and how you might work together to create a fulfilling experience for everyone that delivers results that delight your customers/clients.

Over the past couple of years, I have experienced firsthand the pleasure—and challenges—of working with my family at The Ghannad Group. I have been guilty at times of withholding feedback and direction from my kids because I didn’t want them to think I was delivering the feedback as a controlling dad. In spite of the few challenges we have faced, we have managed to build a strong a cohesive team that builds on the love and respect we have for one another and fully utilizes the diversity of experiences and talents of its members.

Family and friends provide us with the opportunity to practice self-transcendence and self-transformation like no one else can, and they allow us to access the meaning behind “I am the One, and it’s not about me” if we are intentional in cultivating our relationships with them. While it can certainly be a challenge to work with friends and family, doing so also gives you an even greater opportunity to supercharge your commitment and delivery extraordinary results by taking advantage of the synergy that already exists between members. It takes time and effort to cultivate that type of relationship, but if done correctly, you will produce performance and solidarity and morale stronger than you ever will in any conventional setting. If you are engaged in a family/friend business of any kind, I hope this post has given you a few ideas and at least pointed you in the right direction to ensure that your endeavors are successful.

About the Author: Amir Ghannad is an international keynote speaker, author of The Transformative Leader, leadership consultant, culture transformation champion, and founder of The Ghannad Group. He has made it his life's work to guide leaders and equip them with the tools, skills, and the mindset necessary to create extraordinary workplace cultures that deliver breakthrough results. Download his free e-book, titled 5 Practical Steps to Make Your Culture Transformation Stick by clicking here.

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Want to get in touch with Amir? Email amir@theghannadgroup.com

As always, have a great week! May you Boldly Declare, Courageously Pursue, and Abundantly Achieve the Extraordinary!

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